The Scandal of the Public Evangelical
It's been a tough couple of months for evangelical public figures. We discovered that Carrie Prejean, Miss California, sudden heroine in the gay marriage debate, posed nude for the cameras to kick-start her modeling career.
Then there were the Gosselins, a seemingly devout couple who were sacrificially raising a "ginormous" family on reality TV for all to see their Christian witness. They have decided to divorce. They mouthed the usual mantra, about doing it for the sake of the kids—and the hearts of the devout nationwide sank in despair.
This week we're squirming over South Carolina Governor, and active Christian, Mark Sanford. Every day we discover more sordid details of his extra-marital affair, with Sanford himself revealing, well, just way too much information. Do we really need to know how many times he kissed his paramour, and where they met, and which meetings resulted in "crossing the line" and so forth? Now he's trying to spiritually justify staying in office. It feels so narcissistic and self-serving.
It's discouraging to see Christians who could have been models of our faith become merely examples of what G. K. Chesterton called the one doctrine subject to empirical proof: original sin.
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There is something in the evangelical psyche that denies this reality. Yes, we're a movement that preaches repentance and confession of sin as a chief means of grace. But after conversion, our holiness heritage kicks in. We preach, teach, and live "discipleship," "obedience," and "following" Jesus. We're deathly afraid of cheap grace. We assume that with sufficient exhortation and moral effort, our sins will become smaller than a widow's mite and our righteousness larger than life.
This is coupled with the long-standing evangelical myth that there should be something different about the Christian. A look. An attitude. A lifestyle. Something noticeable, something that causes the unbeliever to pause and wonder, "What does that person have?" Because it is such an integral part of our evangelistic method, we spend enormous amounts of psychic energy trying exude that something.
But we find, more days than not, that there's not much to that something. We drop our coffee and blurt out a four-letter word, or we drink too much at the office party, or we fail to enquire about the welfare of a neighbor who just discovered she has cancer. Most days, we seem to be no different from the rest of humanity.
I think this is what most disturbs us about celebrity moral failures. We want someone to look up to, to model for us and for the world the righteous Christian life. But we find out that more times than not, these public Christians are just like us—subject to youthful indiscretions, unable to sustain commitments through hard times. Lying. Cheating. Foolish.
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This is not to say that being a Christian does no good. Take me, for example! I'm more patient, caring, kind, and compassionate today than I was when I first went forward at an altar call forty-some years ago (just ask my wife). Some of that is due to the maturity that comes from making lots of mistakes, but some of it is due to four decades of steady Christian discipleship.
Then again, I'm always running into non-Christians who appear to be as patient, caring, kind, and compassionate as I am. Add to that a growing awareness of the reality stirring in the deepest levels of my being, of just how much I remain selfish, narcissistic, prideful, and indifferent (just ask my wife!). And then there's that continuing hostility toward God after all these years (e.g., why does morning prayer so often feel like a duty to get out of the way when I supposedly love God?).
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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